Imagine that you and your family have been going to the same diner for a decade. You know the diner’s offerings inside out—at least, you think you do. Then one day the waitress mentions offhandedly that the diner’s most acclaimed dish isn’t on the menu, and she’s surprised you don’t know about it already. You’ve potentially been missing out all that time!
One of the biggest challenges to effective communication in organizations is not misunderstandings, but missed understanding. By that, I mean you miss out on critical information because you don’t know what you don’t know. When you work with a limited pool of data, you’re more likely to make inferior decisions.
The cost of missed understanding
It’s hard to fix the problem of missed understanding on your own. After all, how would you know that you didn’t know something? Some examples of this at work might be:
- People who have improved a process, but haven’t shared it.
- People who have discovered a new customer need, but don’t let the rest of the team know what it is.
- People who have simplified their workflow, but never mention it.
All of these behaviors are symptomatic of an organization that chronically misses understanding, and the stakes are higher than missing out on a better meal. Missed understanding costs time and money and multiplies stress. You may see its fingerprints wherever you have duplication of effort, rework, and project-scope creep. Missed understanding makes most things more difficult; the only thing it facilitates is poor decisions.
Model and encourage effective communication
Here are three ways to address missed understanding:
Let go of the “I’m sure this is obvious” mindset. Because it might not be! Just because you do something new doesn’t mean that others are thinking about it. If you’ve improved something, assume that you have the best version available. Get it out to others as soon as you can.
Don’t be afraid of being redundant. Many people are more worried about protecting their ego and not rocking the boat than they are committed to making improvements. If you’re afraid to share something because others might already know it, you can preface your statement with “You may know this already, but just in case, I wanted to share this because it could help create better outcomes.”
While working, ask yourself “Who needs to know what I know?” In hierarchical organizations, it’s easy to think that “they” already have things taken care of. The fact is, there is no they. There’s only we.
No one else has the same perspective as you do on your work. As you go through your workday, you have unique insights. Share them so that others don’t have to wait for inspiration to magically strike. By modeling this behavior, you’ll encourage others on your team to do the same.
If you think missed understanding is happening in your organization, step up and speak up. It’s not always easy, so it will take courage.
As a manager, you can help this process along by explicitly making space for such sharing conversations to happen. Consider blocking out time for team sharing sessions. Proactively ask members of your own team and others about any processes they’ve improved or tricks of the trade they’ve invented to produce results. Armed with better information and understanding, everyone can work smarter.
With productive communication strategies, you can build the good work relationships needed to succeed in a complex work environment.